Nine "Soiled Doves" Who Changed the Face of the Old West
Nine “Soiled Doves” Who Changed the Face of the Old West

Nine “Soiled Doves” Who Changed the Face of the Old West

Larry Holzwarth - November 27, 2017

Nine “Soiled Doves” Who Changed the Face of the Old West
An 1890s photo of Calamity Jane standing at the gravesite of Wild Bill Hickok in Deadwood’s Mount Moriah Cemetery. Unusually for her she is wearing women’s clothes. Wikipedia

Martha Jane Canary

Martha Jane Canary was an illiterate who published her autobiography, which she dictated to ghostwriters, a performer in Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show who preferred to wear men’s clothing, an unreformed alcoholic, a self-proclaimed army scout in the Black Hills, and an occasional prostitute for madam Dora DuFran. She is known to history as Calamity Jane, has been portrayed as the lover of Wild Bill Hickok by Doris Day, and so little of her legendary life is verifiable that it is difficult to accept any of it.

Years after her death, a bundle of letters allegedly written by her were presented as proof that their owner was the daughter of Jane and Wild Bill, a hoax revealed when evidence was presented that Jane never learned how to sign her own name, let alone write a letter.

In 1867 Jane was described as an attractive woman, and she took her five siblings with her to Fort Russell after the deaths of both of their parents. There and at Fort Laramie she was by 1874 working as a cook, saloon girl, dance hall girl, and prostitute. She claimed in her autobiography to work as a scout for the Army in its campaigns against the Plains Indians, several army officers disputed this account. None of her accounts of her service with the army as a scout or courier has been verified by military records, and most have been disputed, with one officer writing in 1904 that she “…never saw service in any capacity…never was in an Indian fight…she was simply a notorious character, dissolute and devilish…”

Her relationship with Wild Bill Hickok appears to have been the product of her imagination as well. During the time Hickok was in Deadwood, South Dakota, Jane worked with and may have lived with Dora DuFran, the town’s leading madam. Hickok had married Agnes Lake in March of 1876, he died in August of that year in Deadwood.

Calamity Jane appears to have met Hickok when the two were part of the same wagon train to Deadwood in the spring of 1876. Calamity Jane did work as a wagoneer, possibly as a miner, tried her hand as an innkeeper, and definitely worked as a prostitute. Beyond that most of her claims regarding her colorful life are questionable.

Nine “Soiled Doves” Who Changed the Face of the Old West
Along with her husband and her pet parrot Dora DuFran is buried in Deadwood’s Mount Moriah Cemetery

Dora DuFran

Dora Bolshaw was born in the English city of Liverpool and came to the United States following the American Civil War, probably in 1869. By 1877 she and her parents were living in Lincoln, Nebraska, some accounts have them arriving in 1876. She began working as a prostitute to soldiers around the age of 14, working both in a brothel and independently as a dance hall girl.

When the Deadwood Gold Rush hit, Dora followed the wave of miners and prospectors to the new mining camp in the Black Hills, declaring herself to be at the age of fifteen a madam, and opening a brothel which originally was little more than a mining tent.

Despite her youth, Dora was insistent that the women who worked for her, most of whom were older and more hardened members of their profession, practice good hygiene and dress. Calamity Jane worked for her on an occasional basis, but her refusal to bathe and her habit of wearing men’s clothes served to limit her appeal to Dora and to the men who Dora solicited. Towards the end of Jane’s period in Deadwood Dora employed her as a dishwasher and cook. Dora enjoyed the company of cats as pets and after Charlie Utter delivered several to her brothel in Deadwood, she began referring to it as the “cathouse” adding a new word to the American lexicon.

Dora’s enterprise grew to include several brothels in nearby communities such as Lead, Belle Fourche, Miles City, and Sturgis. She married Joseph DuFran, one of the many professional gamblers who made mining camps and boomtowns their places of business, and DuFran helped her scout locations and grow the brothels as he made money at the poker and faro tables.

Dora DuFran wrote a twelve-page pamphlet on Calamity Jane later in life, and after the death of her husband relocated to Rapid City, where she opened yet another brothel. She died in 1934 and is buried in Deadwood’s Mount Mariah Cemetery, along with Wild Bill Hickok, Calamity Jane, Seth Bullock, her husband and her pet parrot.

Nine “Soiled Doves” Who Changed the Face of the Old West
The Bella Union Saloon and Theater in Deadwood South Dakota, where Mollie Johnson met her bigamist husband. Wikimedia

Mollie Johnson

Mollie Johnson was another Deadwood madam who operated as the main competition of Dora DuFran for many years. Mollie came to Deadwood from Alabama, where she had begun working as a prostitute at the age of 14 or 15. In Deadwood Mollie became known largely through her own self-promotion as the Queen of the Blondes. Her sobriquet was based on her employing three blonde women who worked in her brothel as well as maintaining separate boarding houses for itinerant miners and other drifters through the camp.

Mollie’s brothel was known as a loud and sometimes dangerous place, as the women, there were competitors both for renters in their boarding houses and customers in the brothel. Frequently this competition led to physical confrontations between the women, often to the entertainment of the customers.

By 1878 Deadwood had a facility presenting touring shows and other entertainment known as the Bella Union Theater. Mollie met Lew Spencer there when he was performing as a comedian. Spencer was an African American touring performer and he and Mollie were married in 1878, although Spencer continued to tour as a performer and Mollie continued to work as both madam and prostitute.

While on tour Spencer was arrested for shooting a woman later identified as his first wife, evidently the marriage to Mollie was an act of bigamy. There is no evidence that Mollie ever saw Spencer again.

Mollie suffered at least three fires which destroyed her brothels in Deadwood, rebuilding each time. By 1883 business in the mining camp had largely fallen off and Mollie left Deadwood to vanish from history. Stories of her bordellos and the women who had worked in them were common in the Deadwood newspapers up until the time she left town for parts unknown, and many can be read today.

Where Did We Find This Stuff? Some Sources and Further Reading

True West Magazine – Fannie Porter

True West Magazine – The Nude Duel that Will Not Die

Texas Public Radio – Why Did San Antonio’s Most Famous Brothel Lose Its Historic Designation?

The Vintage News – Fannie Porter- The Most Iconic “Madame” Of the Old West

Medium – The High Life of Belle Brezing

Owlcation – Big Nose Kate: A Gunslinger’s Gal

History Net – To the Miners of Virginia City, Julia Bulette Was the Beloved Queen of the Comstock

Mental Floss – Big Nose Kate, Independent Woman of the Wild West

Legends of America – The Painted Ladies of Deadwood Gulch

History Collection – The Notorious Men of the Wild West

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